It’s been said that the West as we think of it—the “fast-flowing streams and invitingly open banks, celebrated in photographs and songs and pickup truck commercials,” as Kevin Taylor wrote in 2009 in High Country News—is an illusion.
In Taylor’s article, the message of this illusion was preached by Grand Canyon Trust project manager Mary O’Brien, who said the species that could bring us back to a wetter landscape that existed before white settlers arrived.
But not everyone would thank the beaver for it.
High waters that flooded Highway 9 in Blue River, Colorado, in July hearkened back to Taylor’s article: the flooded road was likely a result of busted beaver dams that clogged the culverts, Summit County Road and Bridge director John Polhemus said.
“There’s been some pesky ones up there by Highway 9,” he said of the beavers.
Blue River second home-owner Mark Ronchetti agrees. Speaking on a drive to his Albuquerque, N.M. broadcast meteorologist job, he said when he bought his nine-acre property, the area was “so choked off by beavers building dams that it stopped up the water to make it like wetlands.”
He said he found 10 to 15 dams “clogging the flow” that he’s since broken up. He also relocated some of the architects, because beavers are such hard workers, they’ll rebuild a dam within days, sometime hours.
“Without that, the house would’ve been flooded,” Ronchetti said.
He’s noticed beavers abiding in vacant properties north of his lot.
“I understand having beavers and habitat, but we can’t just let it go,” he said. “It’s good to have some wetlands, but there must be some control of what’s going on. The Blue River has got to be able to flow through there.”
Conversely, the Western landscape in the heyday of the beaver may have been unimaginably lush, in the same places where the beaver is now considered an intruder.
In his article, Taylor called the rodent a time-shifter, “having the power to extend the release of water late into summer, saturating the ground and healing watersheds. It has the power to re-create the primordial, wetter West that existed for millennia—a West we just missed seeing.”
Beaver activity can transform an ephemeral stream that traditionally runs for just a few days in spring into one that lasts for several months.
Our present disconnect with the beaver comes largely from the trapping era, when beaver populations were decimated. North America had an estimated 60 million beaver before European settlement, which eventually dropped in a century of trapping to roughly 100,000.
The species has since made a comeback, but beaver-restorers contend there’s still a long way to go.
In high-elevation valleys, evidence of the beaver’s impact on the landscape can be readily seen. Many meadows and ponds tucked away between crags were formed by beaver dams—and the remnants of the dam are often still there.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife manages beavers as furbearers, acknowledging the opportunity for sport harvest, because the animal’s fur has commercial value.
According to the agency’s literature, when beaver fur used for felt in hats was replaced by silk hats, the fashion shift likely saved the animal from extinction.
The beaver is a keystone species that restores riparian habitat and raises the water table, the Division of Wildlife declares. “No mammal other than humans has as great an influence on its surroundings. Without them, the ecosystem would change dramatically.”
In Silverthorne, Colorado, public works director Bill Linfield and his crew spend hours, days and sometimes up to a month in spring breaking dams at Straight Creek and Willow Creek.
Wetlands in Willow Creek require Linfield’s crew to go in with waders and pull the dams apart one stick at a time, Linfield said. “By the next morning, the beaver has rebuilt the dam. It’s a constant battle.”
Which is why he’s relocated several of the beavers. This year, no trapping took place, but it’s been an almost annual occurrence since public works took on the task of protecting the outlet buildings and the local homes.
“We don’t want to kill them,” Linfield said. “We just want them to go somewhere else.”
For those who would protect beaver, one challenge is a widespread conviction among people who live in proximity to the animal that it, and its creative enterprises, must be controlled.
This feature originally appeared in the Summit Daily News and an edited version is republished here under a content partnership.